Archived Outdoors

Notes from a Plant Nerd: Nothing New Under the Winter Sun

For Adam Bigelow, the first bloom of the trout-lily symbolizes the start of a new year — but in February, not January. Adam Bigelow photo For Adam Bigelow, the first bloom of the trout-lily symbolizes the start of a new year — but in February, not January. Adam Bigelow photo

Every year on the last night of December, in the dead of winter, the cries go out of “Happy New Year!” We toast our old acquaintance, kiss our sweethearts, celebrate the highs and drown the lows of the previous twelve months in a night of revelry.

But is it really a new year? Sure, the calendar changes and suddenly its January. We have to practice writing and saying a new number for our calendar year. But is it really new?

Were you to walk outside and look at the ground on Dec. 31, and then go outside and look at the ground on Jan. 1 there would be little to no change, nothing new. The plants are dormant still, no sap is rising, no buds swelling on the bushes and trees. There are no new birds at the feeder, the sun is still low on the horizon, and it still gets dark at 5:30. Seemingly, nothing has changed. Nothing is new.

Yet, we don our party hats and fancy clothes. We pop the corks of Dom Pérignon or bubbly apple cider and await the countdown. And if you’re from the South or are African American and a part of the Black diaspora, who carry on traditions brought to this country and adapted by enslaved people from North Africa, we eat collard greens (Brassica oleracea) and black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata) to symbolize wealth, abundance and good fortune. All to honor and celebrate a new year.

And in our modern culture, which is sadly disconnected from nature and natural cycles and rhythms, we set our new intentions. We make new year’s resolutions and wonder why we usually fail to follow through on these changes and lifestyle adjustments. Well, I’m here to suggest that the reason that our New Year’s resolutions quite often do not come to fruition is because we are making them at the wrong time of year, in the winter when nothing is changing, when nothing is growing or new.

Want to make wholesale changes in your life? Wait until spring. Wait until the year is really new when life bursts forth from the ground and air. Wait until everything is changing and invigorated with vitality. Wait until the wildflowers return from their long winter’s sleep. That’s the time for resolutions and setting new intentions, especially if you want them to succeed. 

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In the springtime, all of life and nature is imbued with newness and change. And so are you, for you are also nature. I have a different definition of the start of springtime than many others, just as my celebrated New Year differs. For me, spring is the new year. And spring comes with the return and first bloom of the trout-lily (Erythronium spp.) This tends to occur on or around Valentine’s Day, in this one special, sheltered spot way up on Moses Creek in Cullowhee.

I admit to being a wildflower stalker. And in early February, depending on the weather, I begin checking that spot for the trout-lily’s emergence. The day before it comes up, the forest floor looks as brown and dormant as it has since the start of winter the year before. And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere arise the mottled green leaves and beautiful yellow and orange flowers of the trout-lily. And I shout, “Happy New Year!” to my dog and the forest, and my heart swells with hope and joy. Maybe this year, I’ll bring along some champagne. But for now, I’ll continue to hunker down and enjoy the winter. And believe me, there is plenty to enjoy of nature in winter.

(Adam Bigelow lives in Cullowhee and leads weekly wildflower walks and ecotours through Bigelow’s Botanical Excursions. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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